Monday night saw the explosive season finale for ITV's latest period drama, The Halcyon.
In one of the many subplots in the drama, Austrian Jewish chef, Max Klein, struggles against prejudice and xenophobia to both hold onto a job and get his family out of France. In their flight from Nazi Germany, Klein became separated from his wife and six-year-old daughter, who remained stranded in France. Obviously The Halcyon is a drama and not a documentary, but how accurate is their portrayal of what the Max Kleins of this world would have experienced?
The storyline of a refugee fleeing persecution and attempting to find safety and security in a foreign land is certainly a very timely one - it is impossible to ignore Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees, or Theresa May's decision to end the Dubs amendment, which was designed to allow vulnerable children refuge in Britain.
For the thousands of Max Kleins who were able to reach Great Britain before World War II, the future remained uncertain. At the outbreak of war, many people understood that a lot of the Germans and Austrians living in Britain were refugees. Tribunals were set up to examine every German and Austrian national in the country, and 'enemy aliens' were given a classification - 'A' for aliens considered a threat to Britain, which led to immediate arrest; 'B' if the magistrates were not sure which decision to make, which included a ban on owning bicycles, cameras, radios, and travel restrictions; and 'C' if aliens were considered 'genuine refugees'. These tribunals varied considerably depending on the judge and what they thought of foreigners, but at least for the first few months of the war many German and Austrian refugees were left at liberty. These individuals would have been able to get jobs in places where employers were sympathetic to refugees, like Max Klein at The Halcyon.
However, at the time The Halcyon is set in 1940, seemingly during the Blitz, the situation for Max Klein would have changed dramatically. After the fall of France, Belgium, and Holland in May 1940, there was a huge amount of fear that the same thing could happen in Britain, and that perhaps many of the Germans and Austrians living in Britain were actually spies or saboteurs. As a result of these fears, Winston Churchill gave orders for all male enemy aliens, regardless of classification, to be interned. Women who had been classified as 'B' were also interned along with their children. A variety of holding camps such as racetracks, unfinished housing estates, abandoned mills, and even Holloway Prison, were used until the internees could be transported to camps on the Isle of Man.
Almost as soon as the Germans and Austrians had been locked up (soon joined by Italians after Italy's declaration of war in June 1940), public feeling changed and there were calls for the internees to be released. The British government published a series of White Papers during the second half of 1940 that outlined categories for release. Priority was given to engineers, farmers, doctors - anyone who could be useful to the British war effort. Internees were also able to obtain release if they signed up for the Pioneer Corps, which was an unarmed, mainly logistical unit that provided essential support to the British army. Max Klein, as a chef, would not have qualified immediately for release, and therefore, is most likely to have still been in an internment camp at the time The Halcyon was set. It is possible that he would not even have been on the Isle of Man at this point, as several thousand internees were sent abroad in July 1940 to either Canada or Australia. Of the 5 ships that set sail with a mixture of POWs and internees, one never made it to its destination. The Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk July 2, 1940, with the loss of several hundred lives, the majority of them Italian internees, in the greatest tragedy of British internment.
So, at the time of the Blitz, Max Klein may not have been subject to the constant threat of bombs in London, but he would have had his own problems to face. In a heart-warming twist in the last episode of The Halcyon, Klein is reunited with his wife and daughter, who were said to be found in an internment camp outside of Liverpool. The internment camp outside of Liverpool was called Huyton, and was male only. Had his wife and daughter been interned, they would have been on the Isle of Man by this point in the female camps on the south of the island, and it would have taken a while for them to secure their release. However, the tragic reality is that had they been trapped in France when Germany invaded, it would have been almost impossible for them to have later escaped to Britain, robbing Klein of his happy ending.
Max Klein would not have had quite the experience as portrayed in The Halcyon, but there is more than enough drama to be found in the true story of internment.